Mental health is a difficult concept to handle well. Many TV shows use issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm or suicide as plot devices, and they often handle it poorly. Most recently, the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why was accused of romanticising suicide and self-harm. Going a little bit further back, Miranda in Lizzy McGuire develops an eating disorder after thinking she is too fat. This disorder somehow disappears like a flash within a single 25 minute episode, following meagre encouragement from her friends.
It is clearly a significant issue for television that mental health is too commonly misrepresented. However, not all television shows that portray it do so poorly. There are a number of shows that take great care and attention with their depictions of mental health. Not only does this often make for a better show all round, but also results in characters who can resonate far more powerfully with viewers who may share these issues with them or know someone who does.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted its titular character battling vampires, demons, witches and all manner of other creatures of the night. In the later seasons however, the slayer is forced to battle not only the forces of evil, but also her own deep depression. After being brought back from the dead, Buffy is shown struggling to cope with life, the world, her friends, and just about everything else. She keeps on doing what she must for her friends (and the world) but it is clear that the enjoyment she once found in life has been dulled. While she finds ways to cope over the course of the last two seasons, and is eventually able to get back to relative normalcy, her depression is never cured. There is always a part of her that feels removed from the rest of the world.
Another show depicting a plethora of mental health conditions with a bleak honesty is the critically acclaimed Bojack Horseman. Bojack himself suffers from clear symptoms of depression and anxiety. Even when things are going well for him, his inner monologue is constantly putting him down and encouraging him to sabotage himself. The most recent season, in addition to Bojack’s usual depression, anxiety, and addiction, dealt with his mother’s dementia. It also portrays his assumed daughter, Hollyhock, suffering from her own self-doubt and body confidence issues. The show never shies away from unpleasant topics, but nor does it glorify them.
Finally, a different take on mental health comes from Parks and Recreation. Rob Lowe’s character Chris Traeger was always one of the happiest, most positive people in the show. He is seen as a paragon of physical health and also the man to go to if in need of a pep talk. As the seasons go on however, we see the cracks in Chris’ persona appear as he falls into a deep depression. Traeger’s depression is unique in TV because throughout it all, he continues trying and failing to find ways to beat it. Instead of falling into a pit of despair, he commits himself to helping others, exercising, and his work, and yet still he continues to feel emptiness and despair. Traeger shows us that even the most outwardly happy and optimistic people can be just as likely as the rest of us to suffer from mental health issues.
These three shows are very important for the depiction of mental health on television. While it is a topic approached with a lack of sensitivity and awareness, it is something that can also be portrayed with the deepest levels of attention and care. These shows serve to inform us all about the brutal everyday realities faced by so many people.
Image: David Shankbone @ Wikimedia Commons